Op-ed: New Mexico can achieve better health through oral health

This op-ed was originally published in the Albuquerque Journal.

By Lou Volk and Joseph Dill, DDS

We know that maintaining a healthy lifestyle can have a lasting impact on health. While diet and exercise get more attention, taking care of our oral health is just as important. As the New Mexico state Legislature convenes and considers new policies to increase access to health care, we urge them to focus on improving oral health.

Oral health can impact many systemic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes. With our combined 70 years of experience supporting the oral health of New Mexicans and Americans nationwide, the link between oral health and overall health is obvious to us.

However, far too many do not have access to oral care, which has long-lasting, detrimental impacts on overall health. That’s why we recently convened 20 providers, government officials, nonprofit organizations, academics, and other health care leaders in Albuquerque to discuss barriers to care and joint solutions to overcome them.

Our comprehensive strategy to improve oral health in New Mexico includes:

Building the dental workforce of the future: It has been challenging to retain and recruit enough dental providers to deliver oral health care to New Mexico’s rural and frontier residents. Delta Dental recently established the first national Oral Health Diversity Fund to invest in innovative programs that inspire youth to pursue careers in oral health.

One grantee, the Society of American Indian Dentists, works to increase Native American representation in dental professions to improve access to quality oral health care in tribal nations and pueblos in New Mexico. We must invest in grants, fellowships, and scholarship programs for dental students and providers that serve in shortage areas and increase the number of dental providers able to provide culturally competent care.

Investing in rural infrastructure: New Mexico has spearheaded efforts to support rural health care delivery. Teledentistry can also bridge critical oral health gaps, but New Mexico is ranked 44th in the U.S. for access to broadband and 39th for overall internet access.

Exploring new care pathways: Better health for more people means providers communicating effectively on behalf of patients, a theme that came up often during our meeting. Research sponsored by Delta Dental found that dental and medical professionals working together to increase information sharing and collaboration can advance patient-centered care.

Dental Provider Networks can facilitate interprofessional communication to better identify disease risks and underlying conditions, proactively helping patients manage their oral and overall health. We urge continued medical-dental collaboration to advance New Mexico’s overall health.

Improving health literacy: Health literacy ensures people can make informed decisions about their health, from understanding instructions following an appointment to comprehending insurance coverage. However, there are major gaps in health literacy, especially among low-income, aging, and rural populations. We call upon our legislators in Washington, D.C., to advance legislation that addresses oral health literacy gaps, enhances patient-provider communication, and improves health outcomes.

During our convening, we were inspired by the talented and caring professionals working tirelessly for a healthier New Mexico. Together, with a strategy focused on meaningful solutions, we can create lasting change by advancing better health through oral health.

Lou Volk is president and CEO of Delta Dental of New Mexico. Dr. Joseph Dill DDS, is the head of Dental Science at the Delta Dental Institute.